RABBI DAVID WOLPE
I was agnostic or atheistic until age 47. While I firmly identified as Jewish because of my fondness for its ethics and customs, I had no theology, no clarity on God and soul. I found theological assertions to be, in Christopher Hitchens' words, "evasive, slushy, and weak."
In contrast with theology's opaqueness, I thought astronomy and chemistry held all the answers to the key questions of life. I had crystal clarity on the fact that we're all made of stardust, that our sublime reality is "we are not simply in the universe, the universe is in us." (Neil deGrasse Tyson) One of the highlights of my life was the first time I saw the Pleadies star cluster, so bright and gorgeous, through a telescope. There is no doubt, as Jacob Berkowitz wrote in Stardust Revolution: "If you take yourself apart atom by atom, you'd find that by mass four simple atoms--elements 1, 6, 7, and 8 in the periodic table--compose approximately 96% of you. You'd end up with a pile of oxygen atoms that weighed in at about 65% of your total weight, followed by 18.5% carbon, 9.5% hydrogen, and 3% nitrogen." The rest is scattered among other atoms that also "were synthesized in the interiors of previous generations of dying stars billions of years ago." (Carl Sagan)
Then my interest in Hitchens led me to the videos below, which introduced me to Rabbi David Wolpe, who opened me to the reality of the intangible and led me to doubt that humans are merely, only, just "temporary ambulatory repositories for nucleic acids" (Sagan) or "an enclosed, propagating metabolic system that manipulates the essence of the universe and reshapes matter and molecules into itself." (Paul Fleischman) Below are some of Wolpe's key themes.
"Judaism is not a scientific proposition but an orientation to the universe. Judaism has no proof, rather it has supporting ideas and experiences. If you make a historical claim or a claim about a physical entity, then evaluate it by submitting scientific evidence. But those claims don't invalidate a spiritual or religious claim. They operate, to some extent, on different levels. A religious experience, if you're outside of it, observing and evaluating it, can seem ludicrous. So can a poetic experience. I can ask you, 'shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' If you literalize that metaphor, you would respond, 'that's idiotic. I'm not a summer's day.' Not all experiences can be evaluated scientifically.
"The task for one who feels God's absence is not to prove God but to find God. Rabbi Leona Medina said, 'If you stand by a lake and see a man on a boat pulling the boat to the shore you might think, if you were mistaken about mechanics and motion, that he was pulling the shore to the boat. When people pray, they make the same mistake. They think they’re pulling God to their wishes. But when you pray successfully, what you’re doing is changing yourself and pulling yourself closer to God.'
"The fact that we don’t understand something greater than ourselves doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Things exist in this world that humans cannot measure, to which we don’t have access, except by something transcendent inside of us. Just as our limbs have limitations and we can’t fly, our minds have limitations, too. The way humans think is not necessarily the way the world is. You have to do violence to human experience, as opposed to honoring it, to assume there is not an intangible realm. To believe only in what you can see seems a peculiar form of blindness. Intuiting the unseen is a gift of perspective. Mastering botany is not the same as appreciating a flower's beauty.
"God is emphatically not a human being, but since we have only human descriptions at our disposal, and have learned to value certain human traits, the Torah delights in fashioning a God who exemplifies the best we can conceive--a God of compassion, goodness, tenderness, and care. Permitting these images to capture us, delight us and move us, appeal to our fancy and intellect is a great liberation of the spirit. Let us undertake this receptivity before we undertake the necessary systemization. The Torah's descriptions of God are couched in human terms so that we might understand them, not because God is adequately described in that way. Such description is human, not Divine, limitation. Images of God as parent, friend, lover, among many others, are the only ways in which human beings can express the intensity and immediacy of relationship. The quality and depth of the relationship are the choice of the human partner. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk said, 'Where is God? Wherever human beings let God in.'
"I have come to think of time as an ascending spiral. We return to where we were before, but never as the same person. We hope to be advancing to a higher level, moving toward some sort of redemption. We repeat the holidays each year and the reading of the Torah is cyclical. Some things will doubtless be new, but we will have many experiences we have had before. May we confront each with more elevated ideas and more developed souls.
"We are animals, but we're not just animals. Don't believe in the non-transcendence of human beings. Don't accept it, don't feel yourself as something less than eternal, don't make yourself small. There exists in this world an image of God. It's in every human being. Millions of human beings throughout history--who have felt transcendence, and been captured by a sense of something greater than themselves, and have lived in sanctity, and believed that they are connecting to divinity and eternity—were not fools and dullards. They were not believing lies. Everyone we would call a tzaddik was not gullible, deceived, and wrong. The person sitting next to you, into whose eyes you can look, is not just an accident of ancient chemistry, all synapse and no soul, just material. There is something special about them. There is eternity inside of them and you.
"The social solidarity that religion creates is not substitutable with the belief that secular humanism will bind us all together. The only thing that will bind humans together is a transcendent ideal that implicates all of us. What makes us all one? Not the idea that we're all half a chromosome from chimpanzees. That doesn't create in me any moral obligation to you. It only creates curiosity. The only thing that creates a moral obligation that I cannot turn away from, that I have to do even when it's to my disadvantage, is that you're a child of God and therefore my brother or sister. If that's not true, then why should I be kind to you or care about you if it's to my disadvantage? Why leave a tip in the hotel room for the maid I don't know and will never see? There's no reason to do so if all I am is a trick of chromosomes.
"At Sinai what you get is not a series of moral rules that you never could've imagined for yourself ('oh I thought it was fine to kill before I got here.') The Torah presumes from the outset that humans know what is evil but do it anyway. Cain is condemned for killing Abel long before Sinai. The point of Sinai is that goodness and love have to be carefully taught. That's the purpose of the Torah: it's not to tell you things you don't know, it's to reinforce and give authority, depth, and richness to what you already know but don't always do.
"You criticize the Torah by the Torah. It gives you the understanding that you use to evaluate its claims. Judaism has always done that. There are things in the Torah that the Rabbis changed, altered, grew, expanded, diminished. That's what it is to be part of a living tradition, constantly fertile with new insights: a continual conversation of sages, scholars, readers, strugglers, seekers, mystics, visionaries...all of them making a contribution.
"How do you say bittersweet in Hebrew? It's מתוק מר...'sweetbitter.' Although they always mix together in our lives, there is more sweetness than bitterness, joy than sadness, love than hate."
Wolpe made these ideas tenable and logical, defending them with aplomb not only in these videos but in dozens of other interviews & lectures, as well as his books. The paragraph above beginning, "God is emphatically..." is a valuable correction of Einstein's desire to "purify the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism." Anthropomorphism is all we have at our disposal, so we should use it while understanding why we're doing so. Wolpe uncovered my spiritual illiteracy and opened the door through which all the other Jewish faculty members subsequently walked into my heart.
Wolpe's mindset echoes a remark from Rabbi Abraham Heschel about the Jews of Eastern Europe pre-Holocaust: "They were sure that everything hinted at something transcendent, that what was apparent to the mind is but a thin surface of the undisclosed, and they often preferred to gain a foothold on the brink of the deep even at the price of leaving the solid ground of the superficial." Similarly, from Leo Tolstoy: "If man does not see and comprehend the illusion of the finite he will believe in the finite. If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Despite the fact that I was utterly convinced of the impossibility of proving the existence of God, I nevertheless searched for God in the hope that I might find Him."
Wolpe on the lesson of Rosh Hashana and, by extension, the fundamental premise of Judaism:
Onto the dialogue with Hitchens:
We get the pleasure of Rabbi Brad Artson appearing with Wolpe:
Rabbi Wolpe engages one of Hitchens' fellow travelers, Sam Harris:
An undercurrent of all these dialogues is the question, "God can never be known or proven, so why bother with religion? " Rabbi Nehemia Polen effectively conceptualizes an answer:
Another undercurrent is the question, "If the Torah is not all literally true, then what kind of truth is there to be gleaned?" Rabbi Brad Artson offers a perspective:
Perhaps the most poignant message Wolpe delivered was in December 2023...
"Resigning, a Hanukkah Message:
As of today I have resigned from the antisemitism advisory committee at Harvard. Without rehashing all of the obvious reasons that have been endlessly adumbrated online, and with great respect for the members of the committee, the short explanation is that both events on campus and the painfully inadequate testimony reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped. Still, there are several points worth making. I believe Claudine Gay to be both a kind and thoughtful person. Most of the students here wish only to get an education and a job, not prosecute ideological agendas, and there are many, many honorable, thoughtful and good people at the institution. Harvard is still a repository of extraordinary minds and important research.
However, the system at Harvard along with the ideology that grips far too many of the students and faculty, the ideology that works only along axes of oppression and places Jews as oppressors and therefore intrinsically evil, is itself evil. Ignoring Jewish suffering is evil. Belittling or denying the Jewish experience, including unspeakable atrocities, is a vast and continuing catastrophe. Denying Israel the self-determination as a Jewish nation accorded unthinkingly to others is endemic, and evil.
Battling that combination of ideologies is the work of more than a committee or a single university. It is not going to be changed by hiring or firing a single person, or posting on X, or yelling at people who don’t post as you wish when you wish, as though posting is the summation of one’s moral character. This is the task of educating a generation, and also a vast unlearning. Part of the problem is a simple herd mentality – people screaming slogans whose meaning and implication they know nothing of, or not wishing to be disliked by taking an unpopular position. Some of it is the desire to achieve social status by being the sole or greatest victim. Some of it is simple, old fashioned Jew hatred, that ugly arrow in the quiver of dark hearts for millenia.
In this generation, outside of Israel, we are called to be Maccabees of a different order. We do not fight the actual battle but we search for the cruse of oil left behind. Remember the oil was to last one night, but lasted eight - which means there were seven nights of miracle. But of course the first night was the greatest miracle — because the motivation to light the initial candle, to ensure the continuity and vitality of tradition in each generation, that is the supreme miracle. Dispute but also create. Build the institutions you value, don’t merely attack those you denigrate. We are at a moment when the toxicity of intellectual slovenliness has been laid bare for all to see. Time to kindle the first candle. Create that miracle for us and all Israel."